Q: How can churches today engage with young people?

Millennials get a lot of stick but I love their relationality. I love that they are often altruists. If you want to see Millennials get excited about the gospel, preach Luke 4, Jesus quoting Isaiah 61, and ask them if they want to see broken hearts bound up and captives set free. Everybody in the room will go: “Yeah, I'm in.”

If there’s one thing that I want to get across to church leaders it’s that Millennials want to be friends with older generations. For Baby Boomers and Generation X, elders knew nothing. We didn't want to have anything to do with them. That is not true of Millennials, and Generation Z (anybody under 25); they want to be friends with their elders. They want to be mentored. They want to be included. They want to take part. They are a participatory generation. They've been taught to vote, tweet, comment, post, and so they just want to join in.

I don't think it's difficult to engage with Millennials. I think if you're nice to them, and include them and are authentic in your relationships: that's actually what young adults are looking for. They want to see that older people mean what they say about being a disciple of Jesus. They want to see what it looks like.

Q: Why is this generation missing from our churches?

Some 70 per cent of Millennials describe themselves as ‘nones’: no religious belief. That is a trajectory that has been coming for 100 years. With every generation it's got less and less and less.

There actually haven’t been young people in churches for quite some time, but the established church had enough older people to prop the numbers up, so they didn't notice. Those older generations are now dying out and so the numbers are showing.

There's also some research that suggests only 50 per cent of those raised in Christian homes will continue to follow their parents’ faith, so proportionately, generation by generation, there is a decrease. We are now down to somewhere between two and three per cent of Millennials attending church.

I think what happens with young people and young adults is that they clump together. They'll find a church where they've got some peers because, you know, 97 per cent of their friends think they're mad for having a faith. So of course they're going to go looking for people like them to be friends with. And so what you have is churches that have significant numbers of young adults that act like a centrifugal force and pull in all the young adults from all the surrounding churches.

You have a church with a cohort, with a big youth group, or a student ministry, or a family ministry, whatever it is, and then surrounding churches will have none. I don't think you can blame 19-year-olds for wanting to have some Christian friends when everybody else in the world tells them that they’re mental for believing there's a God. It would be good if we could be supportive and gracious with those churches that are endeavouring to raise our children and grandchildren rather than grumpy that our kids don't want to come to our church.

Q: What about when young people go to university?

A really interesting thing happened here at Durham University over Christmas: we had 3,000 students turn up to the carol service – that's unheard of. Those are not Millennials; it’s Generation Z, but something is stirring, because the honest truth is they know nothing about the gospel.

When their friends say: “Do you want to come to church?” lots of them are going: “Yeah alright”, because they're curious. One young woman told me a story about a friend of hers whom she had invited to church. Her friend asked if she needed a card: “Well, if you go to the gym, you need a membership card to get in, so do you need a membership card to go to church?” That's the level of not knowing that there now is among the younger generations. The generational chain of knowledge about Christianity has been broken, but that doesn't mean there isn't an interest in faith.

Personally, I don't think Millennials are very hard to reach with the gospel because they're hungry for something more. Life is tough if you're a Millennial. They get a lot of stick but the mental health levels are horrendous. The chances of buying a home slim, the Brexit vote is deeply distressing: 70 per cent of Millennials voted to remain.

I think there's a good biblical precedent that all God needs is a few faithful people in every generation to pour out his Spirit on and see something remarkable happen. And the truth is, the Millennials, who are in are really in. Generation Z who have a faith, they mean it; they don’t do nominal. Nominal Christianity is a thing of the past for young adults. They mean it or they don't.

Q: And what advice do you have for churches where the average age is 78 and their children and their grandchildren have chosen to go somewhere else?

Pray and be supportive, enthusiastic and encouraging rather than grumpy.

Ruth Perrin was speaking to Ian Britton, Premier’s regional producer  

Enjoyed that? Get more articles covering news, culture, faith and apologetics in every print issue of Premier Christianity magazine. Subscribe now for HALF PRICE (limited offer)